White House Correspondents’ Association dinner

Critics divided over comedienne's set

People who were targeted in the speech by comedienne Michelle Wolf included White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and president's counsellor Kellyanne Conway (above).
People who were targeted in the speech by comedienne Michelle Wolf included White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and president's counsellor Kellyanne Conway (above).PHOTOS: REUTERS
People who were targeted in the speech by comedienne Michelle Wolf included White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (above) and president's counsellor Kellyanne Conway .
People who were targeted in the speech by comedienne Michelle Wolf included White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (above) and president's counsellor Kellyanne Conway .PHOTOS: REUTERS
People who were targeted in the speech by comedienne Michelle Wolf (above) included White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and president's counsellor Kellyanne Conway .
People who were targeted in the speech by comedienne Michelle Wolf (above) included White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and president's counsellor Kellyanne Conway .PHOTOS: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • At last Saturday's White House Correspondents' Association dinner, comedienne Michelle Wolf took unflinching aim at some of the notables in the room - and quickly opened a divide over the limits of comedy and comity under a president who rarely hesitates to attack the press.

She took a shot at White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders' "smoky eye" make-up, saying it was made from the ashes of "burnt facts".

She called United States President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka "as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons". She labelled president's counsellor Kellyanne Conway an inveterate liar, and asked: "If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree?"

An icy silence - and a few scattered chortles - fell over the black-tie crowd. Ms Conway sat expressionlessly. Ms Sanders, granted a seat of honour on the dais, limited her reaction to an arched eyebrow and pursed lips.

It was an earthy performance by correspondents' dinner standards, if nothing out of place in an average comedy club. But feedback from the political left and right quickly leapt to extremes.

"It was personally offensive," Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade said in the ballroom, minutes after Wolf ended her set.

"To me, that was an attack to impress Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert," Kilmeade added, previewing a line of criticism that would be dominant on Fox News by Sunday morning.

"Congratulations, when the three of you go out to dinner, I'm sure you'll be laughing a lot. But in terms of the people here and the people at home - totally offensive, horrible choice. In fact, it's the reason why the president didn't want to go."

Critics of Mr Trump - who is no stranger to lobbing insult-comic punch lines at his opponents and is the first president to skip the correspondents' gala since Mr Jimmy Carter - wondered what the fuss was about. "Before we criticise Michelle Wolf, let's remember that Donald Trump has done and said some of the crudest things that any president in history has ever done," said left-leaning analyst Howard Fineman at NBC News and MSNBC. "Just have a little perspective."

By Sunday morning, Wolf, a contributor to The Daily Show With Trevor Noah whose Netflix talk show starts this month, had seemingly scandalised Washington.

In one Twitter exchange, ex-White House press secretary Sean Spicer described the dinner as "a disgrace", netting about 4,000 retweets.

"Thank you!" Wolf replied. By Sunday morning, her response had about 13,000 retweets.

Late on Sunday, Ms Margaret Talev, president of the Correspondents' Association, issued a statement acknowledging "dismay" from members about Wolf's performance.

"Last night's programme was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press," she wrote. "Unfortunately, the entertainer's monologue was not in the spirit of that mission."

Ms Talev said her organisation would consider new ideas about the future format of the dinner - a sentiment echoed by Mr Trump in a tweet about half an hour later.

"The White House Correspondents' Dinner was a failure last year, but this year was an embarrassment to everyone associated with it," Mr Trump wrote on Twitter, adding: "Put dinner to rest or start over."

Going back to Stephen Colbert's blistering monologue in 2006 - delivered as then US president George W. Bush sat unsmiling a few feet away - the comic portion of the correspondents' dinner has courted controversy.

Wolf's 19-minute set also took on Democrats and the news media itself. She quipped that "it's kind of crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn't even in contact with Michigan", and joked about CNN's hyperactive approach to coverage.

"You guys love breaking news, and you did it, you broke it," said Wolf, 32. "Good work. The most useful information on CNN is when Anthony Bourdain tells me where to eat noodles."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2018, with the headline 'Critics divided over comedienne's set'. Print Edition | Subscribe